Why California Must Continue Advancing Criminal Justice Reforms

When it comes to how state and local policymakers seek to support communities, boost the economy, and promote overall well-being, the ability to make choices about budget priorities is one of the most powerful tools they have. As is often said, public budgets are ultimately a statement of what matters to us and the kind of state we want to live in.

In recent years, California has made a number of important policy advances, on the budgetary front and in other areas. But as a new video from Brave New Films highlights, drawing in part on the Budget Center’s analysis, California still spends more than $20 billion a year on incarceration and responding to crime, when you include state and county dollars. These are dollars that could be going to any number of priorities, from boosting access to affordable housing and child care to enhancing the kinds of services and supports that help prevent people from getting tangled up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

That spending on incarceration and responding to crime remains so high is especially vexing in light of California’s substantial progress in recent years on reforming its criminal justice polices in ways that aim to reduce the number of people in the correctional system while also promoting rehabilitation and successful re-entry into the community.

For example, in 2011, Governor Brown and legislators approved public safety “realignment,” which transferred from the state to California’s 58 counties the responsibility (and the related funding) for most adults convicted of lower-level felonies. The result has been a sharp drop in the number of state prisoners and parolees, with just a modest increase in the number of people held in county jails.

Following on this, California voters approved further reforms through the statewide ballot: Proposition 47 in 2014 and Proposition 57 in 2016. These measures further reduced California’s reliance on state incarceration, largely through reforms that reduce sentences for certain nonviolent crimes and provide state policymakers with new tools to address ongoing overcrowding in state prisons.

The changes to California’s criminal justice laws have made a big difference in reducing incarceration. In 2007, the number of adults incarcerated at the state level peaked at 173,000. As of June 2018, this was down to just over 129,000, a drop of about one-quarter.

This is significant progress, but there is much more to be done. Here’s why: First, while state officials expect incarceration to continue to decline due to the recent reforms, the drop will be modest — and nowhere near that of the past several years. Second, even as the number of people in California’s state prisons has declined, this has not made much of a dent in corrections spending at the state level.

Governor Brown pushed for public safety “realignment” as part of his Administration’s response to a federal court order requiring California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, and Propositions 47 and 57 have also helped California to comply with this order. However, state policymakers have been reluctant to push further in reducing incarceration and cutting corrections spending. Instead, they’ve been content with ensuring that the prison population stays within the bounds of the court order.

If California is going to reduce the outsize level of spending it puts toward incarceration and responding to crime, it will take a bold, forward-thinking policy agenda, with a focus on continuing to reform sentencing laws and other criminal justice policies.

What might this look like? As one key step forward, state leaders could create a sentencing commission to review California’s sentencing laws and suggest some common-sense changes. The commission would evaluate the impact of sentence length on individuals who are involved, or might potentially be involved, with the corrections system. The goal would be to modify sentences in order to make sure they are proportionate to the seriousness of the crime as well as to the risk that an individual will reoffend.

As part of revisiting its sentencing policies, California could learn from the kinds of alternative sentencing options that are being tried out at the local level in various counties across the state. In particular, the state could follow counties’ lead in using risk and needs assessments during sentencing, putting in place community-based sentencing options for a broader range of crimes, and expanding eligibility so as to maximize the use of alternatives to incarceration, where appropriate.

Making further and substantial reforms to California’s sentencing laws would have a number of big upsides. From a budgetary standpoint, it would mean freeing up some of that $20-billion-plus for a range of other public investments that could really help to improve and strengthen communities.

There would also be significant benefits from a public safety standpoint. While there are, of course, certain crimes where incarceration — even for a prolonged period of time — is merited, research suggests that a heavy reliance on incarceration is not needed to promote public safety and, further, that states can actually experience lower crime rates even as they incarcerate less. Moreover, prolonged incarceration can promote recidivism. This is because longer periods in prison can break community and family ties that have been linked with decreased recidivism.

On criminal justice and various other issues, California has established a pretty strong track record of showing policy leadership that, in some ways, can serve as a national model. But when you consider our persistently high spending on incarceration and responding to crime, it’s clear that we must build on this progress. This would not only contribute to safer, healthier communities, but would also enable California to boost investment in broadening prosperity and economic opportunity.

— Scott Graves and Steven Bliss